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Pica is an eating disorder where a person compulsively eats things that aren’t food and don’t have any nutritional value or purpose. Depending on when and why a person does this, pica can be normal, expected, and harmless. However, it can cause major problems if a person with this condition eats something toxic or dangerous.

Who does pica affect?

Pica can happen to anyone at any age but tends to happen in three specific groups of people:

Young children, AND ADULTS

People who are pregnant.


People with certain mental health conditions, especially autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disabilities, or schizophrenia

Mental health effects

People with pica often feel embarrassed or ashamed about this condition. Because of this, people with this condition often don’t seek treatment or are afraid to open up about it to their healthcare provider.

What are the symptoms of pica?

The sole symptom of pica is compulsively eating things that aren’t food or have no nutritional value or benefit. Most people with this condition prefer a single type of non-food item they eat.

However, pica can cause other conditions or issues, which have their own sets of symptoms. Other conditions that can happen because of pica include:

Anemia (low iron).

Ascariasis (roundworm infection).


Electrolyte imbalance.

Irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmias).

Lead poisoning.

Small intestine and large intestine obstruction/blockage

Common non-food items eaten

People with pica often eat the following:


Baby or talcum powder.



Clay, dirt, or soil.

Coffee grounds.


Feces (poop) of any kind.

Hair, string, or thread.


Laundry starch


Paint chips.



Pet food.


What causes pica?

Experts don’t know exactly why pica happens. However, researchers know certain factors increase the risk of developing it.

Cultural or learned behaviors. Certain types of pica are common, socially accepted behaviors in certain cultures and religions. A religious example of this is the practice of eating dirt at El Santuario de Chimayó, a Roman Catholic shrine in New Mexico, USA. A cultural example of this commonly happens in cities in the country South Africa, where it’s a common practice among young women.

Stress or anxiety. Pica might be an outlet or coping mechanism for people with these issues.

Negative conditions during childhood. Pica is more common in children living in low socioeconomic situations (such as poverty), but why this happens is unknown. Some possible explanations include that pica is a coping mechanism for children to deal with situations of abuse or neglect. It also might be attention-seeking behavior, especially when one or both parents are absent for any reason.

Nutritional deficiencies. People who show signs of pica often have mineral or other deficiencies in their diet. Iron (anemia), calcium and zinc deficiencies are some of the most common reasons people show these signs.

Mental health conditions. These include conditions that a person might develop spontaneously, conditions they had at birth because of disruptions in how they developed in the womb and genetic disorders they inherited from their parents.

Medical conditions. Pregnancy and sickle cell anemia are two conditions that have connections to pica.

Certain medications increase the risk of someone developing pica or similar behaviors. But it’s unknown if these medications actually cause people to develop pica.

How is pica diagnosed?

Diagnosing pica requires four criteria (with the mentioned exceptions explained after the list):

Time. The diagnosis requires persistent eating items or substances with no food or nutrition value for at least one month.

Mental development. This means a person has developed past a certain point mentally and should know not to eat things that aren’t food or have no nutritional value.

No social and cultural factors. This means the person doesn’t have social or cultural background reasons to explain the behavior.

No medical or mental health conditions. This means pica isn’t happening because of any other conditions.